WASHINGTON (CNN) — With a possible government shutdown looming, top House Republicans gathered Saturday to try to work out a spending plan acceptable to tea party conservatives who demand that it must hurt Obamacare in some fashion.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor headed into the office of Speaker John Boehner to prepare for a noon meeting with the Republican caucus intended to forge a counteroffer to the Senate version sent over on Friday.
In a strict party line vote, Senate Democrats restored funding for President Barack Obama's signature health care reforms that House Republicans had eliminated in their original proposal to extend government funding beyond the end of the current fiscal year on Monday.
A similar 54-44 Senate vote then sent the measure back to the House, leaving Boehner with the choice of urging his divided Republican caucus to vote with Democrats to pass the Senate plan, or to yield again to the tea party wing that seeks to undermine Obamacare.
Now House Republicans are looking at less comprehensive attacks on the health care reforms -- such as a one-year delay in fully implementing them or eliminating a tax the Affordable Care Act imposes on medical equipment -- to attach to the spending plan and send it back to the Senate.
The White House made clear on Saturday that Obama has rejected any effort to tie provisions undermining Obamacare to the spending measure needed to prevent the government from starting to shut down on Tuesday.
A White House official referred CNN to Obama's statement Friday on the issue, saying "I don't think the president could have been any more clear."
"As I've said before, if Republicans have specific ideas on how to genuinely improve the law, rather than gut it, rather than delay it, rather than repeal it, I'm happy to work with them on that through the normal democratic processes," Obama said Friday. "But that will not happen under the threat of a shutdown."
Cruz loses filibuster bid
The Senate began its votes Friday by easily overcoming a filibuster led by GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas against the spending plan. Cruz waged a 21-hour floor speech this week against Obamacare, but 25 more moderate Republicans rejected his tactics in voting with Democrats on Friday to move ahead on the measure.
All but two of the other Senate Republicans then joined Cruz in opposing the Democratic amendment to restore Obamacare funding, as well as in the vote for final approval. The other two Republicans -- Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Orrin Hatch of Utah -- were out of town.
Meanwhile, Democrats facing re-election next year in conservative-leaning states such as Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina all resisted Republican pressure to buck their party over the Obamacare funding
Boehner indicated Thursday the House could revise the Senate's version and send that back, a move that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned would result in at least the start of a government shutdown because of the time it would take to reconsider the proposal.
Cruz said Friday he expected his GOP colleagues in the House to continue the fight by revising the spending plan, which would mean "this issue is coming back to the Senate."
However, Obama said new exchanges for private health insurance under the reforms will open next week as scheduled even if there is a government shutdown, calling it "a done deal."
"The House Republicans are so concerned with appeasing the tea party that they have threatened a government shutdown or worse unless I gut or repeal the Affordable Care Act," Obama said, adding: "That's not going to happen."
The revised spending measure approved by the Senate -- called a continuing resolution -- would fund the government through mid-November, more than six weeks into the new fiscal year that begins Tuesday.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland said the goal now was to work out a broader spending plan for the rest of fiscal 2014 that would ease the impact of forced cuts to the military and other government programs.
House GOP split
Republican leaders in both chambers don't want a shutdown now over the spending issue, for political and negotiating reasons.
They fear the optics of Republicans being blamed for a shutdown, and also want to exert as much leverage as possible for the GOP's agenda at the upcoming deadline to raise the federal debt limit.
However, Boehner needs backing from the 40 or so tea party conservatives in the House in order to have a spending plan pass with full support from his Republican caucus.
The tea party opposition to the Senate version twould mean it could only pass the House with support from all Democrats and some Republicans, which would further weaken Boehner's already shaky leadership of his caucus.
Tea party conservatives want to halt Obamacare now, just as full implementation of its individual health care exchanges begins in the new fiscal year starting Tuesday.
More moderate Republicans, such as veteran Sens. John McCain of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas, criticize the strategy of tying a government shutdown to undermining the health care reform law passed by Democrats in 2010 and upheld by the Supreme Court last year.
"There are some people across America that are so upset with Obamacare -- and I understand their frustration -- that they say we ought to shut down the federal government," Cornyn said, adding that the Congressional Research Service had determined the health care reforms would be funded even if there was government shutdown "because there are alternate sources of revenue that could be used to keep it going."
"So I say to my friends who say we ought to shut down the government to get rid of Obamacare that it won't work," he said.
Democrats slam GOP tactics
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa called on House Republicans to "be responsible and forget about kids' games like picking up their marbles and going home or throwing a temper tantrum or shutting down the government because you can't get your way."
The shutdown showdown comes a few weeks before another fiscal deadline -- the need to raise the nation's debt ceiling so the government can pay all its bills.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said this week the limit on how much the government can borrow must be increased by October 17 or the nation could be technically in default.
Analysts warn of severe economic impact from any doubt cast over whether the United States would fail to meet its debt obligations. A similar bout of congressional brinksmanship over the debt ceiling in 2011 led to the first-ever downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.
However, Boehner faces the same rift in his caucus over the debt ceiling issue, with tea party conservatives pushing for to undermine Obamacare and fulfill other Republican priorities in return for what Obama calls the responsibility of Congress to make sure America can pay its bills.
On Thursday, Boehner had to delay introducing a GOP debt ceiling plan after conservatives complained the proposed package failed to include enough budget cuts and significant changes to entitlement programs.
The initial proposal by House GOP leaders, which would raise the debt ceiling for a year, included a one-year delay of Obamacare, provisions to roll back regulations on businesses, tax reforms, and approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
However, conservatives wanted more.
"It definitely has a lot of goodies in it, things that arguably would grow the economy and would arguably would generate more revenue," GOP Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama told reporters, adding he was undecided on whether to support it. "Washington has a spending problem and this debt ceiling bill does not address the problem."
Another Republican, Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, told CNN that she was also undecided but wanted to see deeper budget cuts on the measure.
"I came here to cut spending and to reduce the size of the federal government, so when those opportunities arise I want to take advantage of them," Lummis said.
Obama said Friday that the GOP strategy amounts to threatening to "burn the house down simply because you haven't gotten 100% of your way."
"That's not how our democracy is supposed to work," he said, repeating his past insistence that he will not negotiate under threat of a U.S. default because Congress failed to increase the debt ceiling.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Thursday a one-year delay in implementing Obamacare's individual mandate for people to obtain health insurance would undermine a key provision of the program that prohibits the denial of coverage due to pre-existing conditions.
"The fact is you have to make the system work," Carney said, adding people with pre-existing conditions won't be denied insurance under Obamacare "because of the expansion of the number of people who will be covered and participate in these marketplaces provided by the Affordable Care Act through the individual mandate."
CNN Chief National Correspondent John King said Thursday that focusing on the debt ceiling was where House Republicans "wanted to wage this fight all along."
"They didn't want to get bogged down in the government shutdown fight, but a conservative revolt within the House Republican ranks forced them to get there," King said.